Moving the state's public health lab from Oklahoma City to Stillwater before year's end without public discussions or previous planning appears to be a hasty decision that must be delayed and discussed publicly.
Oklahoma State Health Department officials sprang the news a week ago about how they planned to pluck the laboratory from the heart of an established medical research center and drop it into temporary leased space "in the middle of rural America." This boondoggle would cost taxpayers $25 million along with federal coronavirus aid that could be better spent combating a still raging pandemic.
That initial cost would balloon — state leaders plan to sink even more money into this scheme, using $58.5 million in bonds approved in 2017 by the Oklahoma Legislature to build a permanent structure. That structure would house the lab and the newly created Oklahoma Pandemic Center for Innovation and Excellence that will operate virtually until construction is completed for the new lab.
Kevin Corbett, appointed CEO of Oklahoma Health Care Authority by Gov. Kevin Stitt and an Oklahoma State University graduate, said the move would "put the heart of public health right in the middle of rural America.” That would be facilitated by leveraging his alma mater's "rural expertise in agriculture and animal medicine," Oklahoma University's "urban expertise in human medicine" and "private research investments."
Synergy can be a good thing at the appropriate time, but dictating a move like the one announced absent of public discourse is inappropriate for a representative government. Public-private partnerships can prove successful only when there is total transparency — that is something there appears to be very little of with regard to this decision and others made by the Stitt administration.
Dr. Lance Frye, Oklahoma's interim health commissioner, used the state's lack of preparation and lackluster response to the pandemic to justify moving the laboratory. The number of new COVID-19 cases continue to climb higher, more patients are landing in hospitals, and flu season is upon us.
State leaders must prove they can get things right before they scramble the public health lab, reshuffle the lives of those who work there, and put public health at risk.